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Authors: Iain Lawrence

Ghost Boy

BOOK: Ghost Boy
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Iain Lawrence

LAUREL-LEAF BOOKS

For my mother

Chapter

1

I
t was the hottest day of the year. Only the Ghost was out in the sun, only the Ghost and his dog. They shuffled down Liberty's main street with puffs of dust swirling at their feet, as though the earth was so hot that it smoldered.

It wasn't yet noon, and already a hundred degrees. But the Ghost wore his helmet of leather and fur, a pilot's helmet from a war that was two years over. It touched his eyebrows and covered his ears; the straps dangled and swayed at his neck.

He was a thin boy, white as chalk, a plaster boy dressed in baggy clothes. He wore little round spectacles with black lenses that looked like painted coins on his eyes. And he stared through them at a world that was always blurred, that sometimes jittered across the darkened glass. From the soles of his feet to the top of his head, his skin was like rich white chocolate, without a freckle anywhere. Even his eyes were such a pale blue that they were almost clear, like raindrops or quivering dew.

He glanced up for only a moment. Already there was a scrawl of smoke to the west, creeping across the prairie. But the Ghost didn't hurry; he never did. He hadn't missed a single train in more than a hundred Saturdays.

He turned the corner at the drugstore, his honey-colored dog behind him. They went down to the railway tracks and the little station that once had been a sparkling red but now was measled by the sun. At three minutes to noon he sat on the bench on the empty platform, and the dog crawled into the shadows below it.

The Ghost put down his stick and his jar, then dabbed at the sweat that trickled from the rim of his helmet. The top of it was black with sweat, in a circle like a skullcap.

The scrawl of smoke came closer. It turned to creamy puffs. The train whistled at Batsford's field, where it started around the long bend toward Liberty and on to the Rattlesnake. The Ghost lifted his head, and his thin pale lips were set in a line that was neither a frown nor a smile.

“It's going to stop,” he told his dog. “You bet it will.”

Huge and black, pistons hissing steam, the engine came leaning into the curve. It pulled a mail car and a single coach in a breathy thunder, a shriek of wheels. It rattled the windows in the clapboard station, shedding dust from the planks. The bench jiggled on metal legs.

“I know it's going to stop,” said the Ghost.

But it didn't. The train roared past him in a blast of steam, in a hot whirl of wind that lashed the helmet straps against his cheeks. And on this Saturday in July, as he had every other Saturday that he could possibly remember, Harold the Ghost blinked down the track and sighed the saddest little breath that anyone might ever hear. Then he picked up his stick and his jar and struck off for the Rattlesnake River.

The stick was his fishing pole, and he carried it over his shoulder. A string looped down behind him, with a wooden bobber swinging at his knees. The old dog came out from the shade and followed him so closely that the bobber whacked her head with a hollow little thunk. But the dog didn't seem to mind; she would put up with anything to be near her master.

They climbed back to Main Street and trudged to the east, past false-fronted buildings coated with dust. The windows were blackboards for children's graffiti, covered with Kilroy faces and crooked hearts scribbled with names: Bobby Loves Betty; Betty Loves George; No One Loves Harold. And across the wide front window of May's Cafe was a poem in slanting lines:

He's ugly and stupid

He's dumb as a post

He's a freak and a geek

He's Harold the Ghost.

In the shade below the window sat a woman on a chair with spindly legs, beside a half-blind old man with spindly legs sitting in a rocker. Harold glanced at them and heard the woman's voice from clear across the street. “There he goes,” she said. “I never seen a sadder sight.”

He couldn't hear the old man's question, only the woman's answer. “Why, that poor albino boy.”

The man mumbled; she clucked like a goose. “Land's sakes! He's going to the river, of course. Down where the Baptists go. Where they dunk themselves in the swimming hole.”

His head down, his boots scuffing, Harold passed from the town to the prairie. The buildings shrank behind him until they were just a brown-and-silver heap. And in the huge flatness of the land he was a speck of a boy with a speck of a dog behind him. He walked so slowly that a tumbleweed overtook him, though the day was nearly calm. In an hour he'd reached the Rattlesnake.

In truth it was no more of a river than Liberty was a city. The Rattlesnake didn't flow across the prairie; it
crawled
. It went like an ancient dog on a winding path, keeping to the shade when it could. But it was the only river that Harold Kline had ever seen, and he thought it rather grand. He splashed his way along the stream, a quarter mile down the river, until he reached his favorite spot, where the banks were smooth and grassy. Then he sat, and the dog lay beside him. He put a worm on his hook and cast out the bobber. It plunged in, popped out, tilted and straightened, like a little diver who'd found the river too cold. A pair of water striders dashed over to have a look at it, and dashed away again.

The dog was asleep in an instant. She hadn't run more than a yard in more than a year, but she dreamed about running now, her legs twitching.

“Where are you off to?” asked Harold the Ghost. His voice was soft as smoke. “You're off to Oregon, I bet. You're running through the forests, aren't you? You're running where it's cool and shady, you poor old thing.” He looked up at the sun, a hot white smudge in his glasses.

The dog went everywhere Harold did. It seemed only natural to him that she would dream of the places he dreamed about.

“We'll get there,” he said, leaning back. The grass and the water and the blue of the sky made a pleasant blur of colors around him. “David will be on the next train, maybe. Or for sure the one after that. And he'll take us away. You bet he will.”

The sun seemed to float on the pool of the Rattlesnake, a little white ball shattered by the branches and leaves. Harold squinted at it, watching the bobber as it suddenly dipped in the river. He tugged on the string, but nothing tugged back, and when he gathered it in he found that the worm was gone.

He picked through his jar and took another one out, hating to see the way it slithered and thrashed at the touch of the hook. His brother had told him worms couldn't feel pain. “Don't worry, Harold,” he'd said. “They don't have brains or hearts or anything.”

But still the Ghost winced at the sound of the hook squishing in. “I'm sorry,” he told the worm. And he let it catch its breath before he lowered it into the water.

He stared down, and for a moment it seemed there were two suns floating on the pool, before he realized it was his own face he was seeing, broken into bars of white by the ripples of the hook.

He was shocked to see himself; he never looked in mirrors. He never looked at window glass or shiny pots, at anything that would show how white he was.

“Oh, gosh,” he said, and jerked his head away. The reflection zoomed across the pond. Then he dropped the bobber and plunged his hands into the river; he shoved them down below the surface.

The water, brown from prairie dirt, gave his skin a golden tan. He looked at his fingers, swollen by refraction but the most beautiful color he had ever seen, and he wished he really looked like that. He thrust his arms deeper, and deeper again, until his sleeves floated up in bunches almost to his shoulders. Then he took handfuls of the brown water and flung them over himself; he poured it across his legs and head, until it sopped through the helmet and dripped down his face and there were rainbows in his glasses.

He didn't hear the horseman come. Hooves trampled on the grass so quietly that even the dog didn't wake. They stepped in the water, and the horse lowered its head to drink from the Rattlesnake.

“It won't wash off,” the horseman said.

Harold stood up, the river dripping from him. The horse was chestnut colored, with white socks up to its knees, and high on its back the rider rippled with black and red. Harold turned his head away to see more clearly; nothing looked right if he stared straight at it.

“You're the way you are,” the horseman said. “Some things can't be changed.”

He was an Indian, old and wrinkled. His face was cracked by sun. He wore a feathered headdress with a tail that curled across the horse's back and fell again along its flank. He sat on a blanket but not a saddle, and his legs were cased in buckskin, his feet in beaded moccasins. He held a lance eight feet long bundled at the top by clumps of jet-black hair and eagle feathers tipped with white, all tied with crimson wool. He might have ridden out of the painting of Custer's last stand that hung above the bar in the Liberty Hotel. He might have ridden out of time, somehow.

“Who are you?” asked Harold. His dog was still asleep.

“I was named Thunder Wakes Him,” said the old Indian. He smiled. “Some people call me Bob.”

“Where have you come from?”

“Where does anyone come from?” he asked.

“Then where are you going?”

“I follow the circus.”

Harold frowned. He couldn't remember a circus ever stopping in Liberty. “What circus?” he asked.

“Hunter and Green's,” said the old Indian. “Hunter and Green's Traveling Circus.”

“But it hasn't gone by.”

“Sometimes I follow ahead of it,” said the old Indian. He leaned forward, his elbow on a bundle that he carried between his thighs. “You've got a fish there, son.”

The bobber was half underwater. Only the tip of it showed, running at a slant across the pond. Harold groped for the string and found it with his hands. He pulled it in, one fist over the other, squinting against the sun that glared back from the water. A big sucker fish clung to the hook, its odd mouth agape, and Harold hauled it onto the grass. The dog finally woke and sniffed at it. Then Harold looked up, and the old Indian was gone.

He climbed up the bank and stared east across the prairie, then west, down the faint ruts of an ancient wagon road. And down the faded trail went the old Indian, a tattered shape with his feathers and scalps. The chestnut horse high-stepped through the grass, its white stockings flashing.

The ruts were a hundred years old. Harold could follow them, he knew, all the way to Oregon, through fields and cities, from hills to mountains, up through forests of pine. And he gazed at the old Indian with a feeling of sadness and longing.

BOOK: Ghost Boy
11.16Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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